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Using and abusing Indonesians

Image of a broken mug
(Pic by punkt_klx / sxc.hu)

I’VE had my share of issues with the Indonesian domestic workers hired by my family. In fact, those experiences may have actually made me more independent in terms of doing my own laundry and ironing. Heck, it definitely helped improve my cooking.

However, as angry as I ever got at these domestic workers, I never forgot one thing: that they were human beings. So, as cynical and sarcastic as I was to them, it never got abusive.

However, there are people in this country who think that paying the salaries of domestic workers and giving them lodging means anything goes.

In May 2004, the Nirmala Bonat case grabbed the headlines. According to Nirmala, her employer had been abusing her since late 2003 after she accidentally broke a mug. She was scalded with boiling water for the mishap.

She also said, “One day [the employer] got upset while I was ironing. She said the clothes had not been properly ironed and slapped me. She took the iron out of my hand and pressed it against my breasts.”

And Nirmala’s case also highlighted another issue: just how slow justice is served in Malaysia. According to press reports, her former flight-attendant employer was only sentenced to 18 years in jail in November 2008.

Not just in Malaysia

However, Malaysia is not the only country where such abuses have been recorded.

In March 2005, 22-year old Indonesian maid Nur Miyati lay bandaged on a hospital bed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Among her injuries were gangrene on her hands and legs, as well as bruising around her eyes, lips, shoulders, ears and the sole of one foot. Doctors feared having to amputate part of her foot.

When taken to the hospital, she was warned by her employer to tell the medical team that she sustained her injuries from falling.

In April 2009, Susilawati Kusnata tried to escape from her employers in a flat in Pasir Ris, Singapore.

Image of toothpaste
(Pic by festland / sxc.hu)
The day before she escaped, Susilawati was confronted by her employer, who grabbed her by the hair, swung her around, and then banged her head against the bathroom wall.

Now what exactly did Susilawati do to receive that head-banging? She used the employer’s toothpaste.

The price of nationalism?

While some might say that these are instances of employee abuse with no xenophobic overtones, there are other cases within Malaysia’s borders that speak loudly of how our authorities view Indonesian citizens.

In September 2007, four plainclothes police officers confronted an Indonesian national outside his hotel in Nilai, Negeri Sembilan, overpowered him, handcuffed him, and then dragged him to the police station, where he was beaten up.

What the police did not know was that this man, Donald Luther Kolobita, was part of the Indonesian karate team participating in the Asian Karate Championships.

What was the police’s justification for beating him up? They were out hunting for illegal immigrants.

In terms of migrant workers in Malaysia, a lot of suggestions have been thrown around, particularly by the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Tenaganita, headed by Irene Fernandez.

In September 2008, the MTUC highlighted that foreign domestic workers were not protected under the Malaysian Employment Act 1955.

MTUC vice-president A Balasubramaniam said, “They don’t get set working hours, termination benefits, sick leave, rest days, public holidays, maternity leave, overtime and every other benefit a normal employee is entitled to … They are the most unprotected and vulnerable workers.”

Subsequently, in April 2009, the MTUC called for the government to allow foreign domestic workers to form a union or an association to protect their interests.

However, this was shot down by Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr S Subramaniam. Even more controversial was the fact that Bernama reported that the minister actually said the Employment Act was sufficient to protect these workers’ interests.

On 9 June 2009, the MTUC proposed that the government make it mandatory for employers to give foreign domestic workers a day off every week not only to rest, but also to allow them to report any mistreatment to the Labour Department. Tenaganita also proposed Image of an old steam iron

(Pic by crisderaud / sxc.hu)
and campaigned for this in November 2008. Neither organisation seems to be making any headway with the Malaysian government.

The thing I really don’t understand is this: I get angry, too, sometimes, with foreign domestic workers. However, when one justifies physical abuse because a mug was broken, toothpaste was “wrongly” used, clothes were ironed wrongly, or it was in the heat of hunting down “illegals”, I have to draw the line.

If the perpetrators of such abuse are adults, why are their minds like those of schoolyard bullies?


Hafidz Baharom is a paradox. He’s an anti-smoking chain smoker, an environmentalist who leaves his office lights on, a centrist who’s a lalang, and a twentysomething yuppie who dreams of being a slacker. Basically, he’s a lovable moron. 

See also:
Domestic helpers to get a day off a week

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2 Responses to “Using and abusing Indonesians”

  1. Cycads says:

    Well, I don’t really want to say that it starts from the top i.e. the state-endorsed prohibition of a foreign maids union, but when migrant workers are not officially given protection or recourse they become easy targets of not only human rights abuses by the state but by ordinary Malaysians. But there’s also racism that is rife in Malaysia, with little respect and value for the underprivileged and disenfranchised who are then viewed as racially inferior.

  2. I’m actually getting a lot reaction to this topic on The Star. One commenter actually posted their experience with a maid that was beyond boundaries:

    “I am sorry I am just a normal working person which is trying to do the best for my family as my mother is a recovering cancer patient, unfortunately I am not some millionaire which afford better life at a snap of the fingers.

    I am not even most upset with the financial losses … which I have spent more than 15K in less than 1 year (getting a replacement) … as my family’s security … is at stake!

    In fact this is already my replacement which 2nd maid … my 1st maid is even even worst as she has compromised my family’s security … as she let a Bangladeshi worker in my house into her room in the middle of the night at 3am … The best part is that I worked on shifts and she knows that I will be coming back around that time and yet … she still dares to let the unknown stranger into my house.

    I am lucky that nothing happened to my baby son and family. I caught her letting the man out from the back door … so what do you have to say about this? Do you know what my maid told me when I confronted her … at that moment she was wearing my family clothes … all the sexy lingerie and sending the man out … she told no problem … jangan risau, pergi tidur lah … “Tak ada apa-apa punya”, kita cuma cakap. I asked her why she was wearing my wife’s lingerie … she said she is too fat and cannot wear so I am taking it to wear! What does the government have to say on the ordeal I had to go through with this kind of maid and agency?

    She stays at home all the time and goes out with my family only … and yet she has the ability to know the Bandgladeshi worker form a factory two rows of houses from my house … unbelievable … I cannot imagine if they are allowed to go on a day off. Totally unbelievable!


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